Without getting too fangirl or sycophantic, I feel it’s accurate to say that David Carson is a man who has transformed the field of graphic design throughout his career. Self-taught, resolutely grid-free, and unafraid to speak his mind (he’s also very funny), Carson’s work made designers realize that editorial layouts didn’t have to stick to the rules around image placement, consistent typography, or doggedly flowing copy issue after issue.
His attitude—one he sees as partly underdog, partly “why not?”—carries through not only his most famous projects like art directing Ray Gun magazine or his work for Transworld Skateboarding, but also branding projects, surfboard designs, packaging design for potato chips, and more; making him as relevant today as ever.
It’s rare to speak to a young designer who’s into zines, music, and a generally less strict aesthetic, and have them not cite Carson as an influence. Someone has even gone so far as to create a meme-like button reading: “Dont give up, David Carson Wasn’t Built in a Day.” The American Center for Graphic Design has exalted him as having made “the most important work coming out of America,” while Creative Review has called him “the art director of the era.” In 2014, he was awarded the AIGA Gold Medal. But for all the praise he’s received, he’s rather lovely when we chat—and pretty humble to boot. He’s also still really into surfing.
Carson has just released a new book of collages, entitled nucollage.001, which gathers 360 pages of recent collage work alongside insights into his processes and inspirations. While the designer’s seminal books like The End of Print and 2nd Sight took a broader, industry-wide look at design through his work, things get a lot more personal with this title, offering snaps of his family life and surfing near his Caribbean second home.
Here, we have a long chat with Carson about collage-making, that infamous Dingbats-set Bryan Ferry interview, why he thinks the new Ray Gun book was a “missed opportunity,” how computers have made too many designers lazy, and a lot more.
Why collage? Why now?
It just kind of happened naturally, starting around a year ago when I was living in Southern California near Manhattan Beach. I had a great garage space and I’d been collecting work from all my travels throughout my career, especially recently. I’d tear off bits of posters in the cities I visited, or posters I’d made for a talk, or that someone else had made—or sometimes something I’d found on the sidewalk like a discarded container or cardboard box. If it appeals, I’ll take it home. I don’t know what tipped it off, but I was able to get an exhibition scheduled in Barcelona at the end of last summer. I said that we should do a catalog, then I realized I could do a book. That was my full-time project for a while.
You said that your goal with the book was to share your work “in a more meaningful and intimate way.” What do you mean by that?
For me, this book is more of an object than my previous books. It has open, lay-flat binding, which I really like for the look, the feel, the smell. I wrote all the captions, too, and they read like how I talk about my work in some of my lectures, what I’m feeling or thinking about that piece. All of that makes it a more personal book, in a sense, instead of just showing a bunch of commercial work. There was no client, no brief, I was just doing something that felt right with no one overseeing me.
The freedom of no client and no brief always brings up the thorny issue of whether something is “art” or “design.” Where do you sit on that?
Well, it’s a very blurry line. This is a graphic design book, but if people want to see it as fine art, it’s fine with me. Collage has been an abused word over the years, sometimes it’s been designated as quite “cute.” There’s some amazing exceptions, but that’s my take as I’m new to it: it doesn’t have the same clout as fine art or graphic design.
“Designers have become lazy and let computers make too many decisions for them. There’s a renewed interest in being able to tell that there’s a human behind it.”
Plenty of graphic design is fine art to be put on walls. Recently, I’ve started to notice a move away from the perfection of the last decade or two, which can be very clean and boring and not very imaginative. It’s starting to loosen up again; maybe people are tired of everything being perfect and formatted and looking the same. Designers have become lazy and let computers make too many decisions for them. There’s a renewed interest in being able to tell that there’s a human behind it.
Collaging seems to fit in with the very manual way you’ve practiced design throughout your career—scanning, iterating, cutting things, shifting different images around, and so on.
I think that’s a good observation. I’ve never said I’ve done collage as such, and I still feel that. But if I go back to early magazine work, especially on art boards and moving things around until they’re communicating what I want to say—in a way, I’ve always been working that way. I’ve never used grids; I still don’t. I never studied or learned about them, and when I did I saw no reason to use them, so that’s how I’ve been working. But that wasn’t collage for collage sake. People said I was “painting with letters and images.”
Sorry in advance for this question, but so many people I interview cite you as an influence—what is it about your work that’s been so influential, do you think?
I think it’s got to be some odd combination of things. Without formal training, I had a different approach to design. I was a bit of an outsider to the field, and I think in general people like that sort of thing in any profession, but you also have to be able to deliver. If anything [the interest in my work] seems to have grown as people are working so oppositely—everything has been grid- and computer-driven for so long now.
“I’ve never used grids; I still don’t. I never studied or learned about them, and when I did I saw no reason to use them.”
You’ve mentioned that since you weren’t taught the “rules” of design, you’ve made your own. What rules are those? Have they changed over the years?
I think the basic approach has stayed similar: Who’s the audience? What are we trying to say, and what would that look like? How would the design reinforce the message, or get people into it? How do you get people to dive into an article or website? All these are considerations that a lot of designers take into account, but from there I go a little more abstract or looser or more intuitive. Design sends a message—whether or not it “feels” right is a hard thing to quantify.
“Sometimes I feel I’m one of the few voices out there trying to keep graphic design a little more emotional or intuitive or give it some spirit.”
It’s not like I have no rules or set out to break rules, I just have a different approach. Sometimes I feel I’m one of the few voices out there trying to keep graphic design a little more emotional or give it some spirit, which is what intrigued me early on. The fact that you can create a lot of reaction just based on the way you arranged things shows that design is such a powerful language.
Thinking back to the 1994 Bryan Ferry Ray Gun interview, which you typeset in Zapf Dingbats [the story goes that Carson read the interview, deemed it boring, and so rendered it unreadable]—I feel like you don’t really see art directors or designers taking those sort of risks now. What was the reaction like?
Well, it was largely pre-internet, so there was not a lot of immediate reaction to it—almost none. You might get letters sent in, but there was no testing beforehand, you just did it. I’m sure I chuckled then… as I often do, I thought, “Why not? Says who? Let’s try it.” I’m a bit surprised it became such a big thing. I don’t show it in my talks, and design-wise it’s average, it’s okay—it’s kind of funny and quick. Sometimes you hear a band say they wrote the song they’re best known for in 10 minutes, like a throwaway thing, so it’s a bit like that. But it fit with the attitude of the magazine, and you have a responsibility to the audience to represent them and the subject matter.
What do you think of the current state of magazine design?
People used to say about Ray Gun, “Oh that magazine’s just for photographers or designers or illustrators, not real musicians.” That was fine, I’d take that, as I knew they were getting the music followers since their favorite bands were in there. But if they found a new typeface or photographer, I’d take that readership too.
“It would be hard to do something as fresh and original [as Ray Gun] now. It was easier then, as less had been done.”
In general, the newer increase of independent magazines are all done at a professional level—like a B+ level—solid, professional, ultimately forgettable. It’s the same software, the people from the same designs schools. The general level was raised [with the rise of indie titles] a bit, but very few get out of their grids and systems. There was more of that with Interview and Emigre when Ray Gun was around, but I don’t see that so much any more.
With the indie thing, it’s really fun and mind-boggling that some of these obscure titles and publications are able to publish. They’re perfect vehicles for experimentation in that they’re independent, so why not have a little more impact inside? It’s certainly healthy and exciting to go into a magazine store again, which it wasn’t until recently, but I want to see more experimentation and attitude shown in the design.
With the new Ray Gun book, is there a chance that Ray Gun might come back?
There’s a few issues there. Number one, the Ray Gun name was sold to a new publisher who bought it and found it was bankrupt and hasn’t done anything with it, and I don’t know if he will. But you can’t go back and repeat something; it would be hard to do something as fresh and original now. It was easier then, as less had been done.
I also want to mention that I think the book is a horrible missed opportunity. I’m really surprised and disappointed how Rizzoli put it together. It’s bad quality photos, the colors and the credit information are wrong… But the publisher of Ray Gun felt he didn’t get enough credit for the magazine and just put out his own book. It shows you what happens when you don’t have a good art director involved.
Do you think magazine relaunches, like with The Face, are a good idea?
I haven’t seen one [at the time of publishing, there hasn’t been a print issue of The Face]. I’m curious to see how they’re doing it and if there’s an audience for it. I hope I’m pleasantly surprised. To be effective, a magazine has to get someone’s attention and move them in some emotional way—grab them other than only through the reading. They have to feel some of what they’re about to read, and the design’s got to be consistent with the subject matter and audience and promise me something that’s worthwhile reading.
I have to ask since I’m a mega-fan: How did David Byrne come to write the foreword for your book The End of Print?
One year in the early ’90s, the first week after New Years, I got two calls: one about a Nike ad from Wieden+Kennedy in Amsterdam, and one from David Byrne wanting a cover for his new video. I remember turning to my assistant and saying, “This is going to be a good year.” It really was the turning point of me getting other work besides magazine work. David Byrne had noticed my Ray Gun stuff early on and wanted a cover for his live video called Between the Teeth, so he got in touch totally out of the blue. I met with him in L.A. and we went to this old movie place to make the credits. They had all this 1960s equipment where the camera just scrolls down the words.
We hit it off it; it was really interesting. Then when it came to doing The End of Print, the publisher Laurence King said “What about asking David Byrne to do the intro?” I thought, “Oh gosh I don’t think so, we’re not really friends—we got along and I did this work, but we’re not in constant contact.” I felt odd but also thought “Heck, why not?” so I sent him a fax asking if he’d be interested in doing the introduction one night. The next morning I get this fax back saying he’d love to. He couldn’t have been any more positive. I was like, “Wow, no way!” It was a surprise to me—he’s so amazing and talented.
“If you have to find your creativity through Google, then you’re probably not very creative.”
Do you listen to music while you work? What are you listening to at the moment?
I can’t work without music; it’s always been a huge part of my process. My taste is all over the place. At the moment I’m enjoying Car Seat Headrest, Pavement, Courtney Barnett—it’s all over the map, but maybe not as wide as I think. On iTunes I go to “alternative” and usually find stuff I like. I grew up with The Beatles and REM but I like to think I stay fairly up to date with the stuff I like. I took a watercolor class about 100 years ago and the teacher told us you always do your best work if you do it while listening to music you like.
You often speak of the Nine Inch Nails projects as being a highlight [Carson designed various album covers and other collateral for the band]. What is it about those projects that stand out?
That’s one of my best projects, maybe because when I was working on it I wasn’t a huge fan. It came about when I was flying back to my studio in New York and reading Rolling Stone, and there was a big piece on a new Nine Inch Nails album [The Fragile, from 1999], which came out after a long time [since the previous release]. I was thinking “Wow, that’s getting a lot of press! It would be a great one to get a job on.” A week later I get a call just saying “Send all your books and materials by Fedex overnight to this address in New York,” and I did it. Then I got a call saying that Nine Inch Nails’ management needed me to fly to New Orleans. I thought, “I think I can find time for that!”
We [Carson and Trent Reznor] met and he played the double album for The Fragile for me. I went back to New York and thought about what it could or should look like, flew back, and the project grew to their MTV music awards commercial, their next album postcards… He was so good to work with. He was so normal. People would probably be a bit disappointed, but he’s a really nice, intelligent, normal guy—that’s why it worked.
You’ve said in talks that creatives should find inspiration from everything around them, rather than having to look for it. To play devil’s advocate, does that mean you’re not inherently “creative” if you don’t find inspiration easily?
If you have to find your creativity through Google, then you’re probably not very creative. It’s about naturally being drawn to everything around you, and somehow using everything you experience and see. Reaching within and finding your uniqueness, that’s gotta drive your decision-making. I often see in agencies that the first step for designers is to go to Google and look for ideas. If you need to do that, you’re not in the right field. Anyone can do that.
Those kinds of jobs are going to be replaced soon, when there will be software that you put the brief and guidelines into and it gives you a deck ready to present. It’ll have obscure typefaces and all that stuff, so that’s going to eliminate a whole slew of designers. You need edginess, to be personal and subjective, as those who aren’t will soon be replaced by those sorts of programs. I’m not sure you can teach creativity: you have that eye or sensibility, or you don’t.